The classroom was filled on a Wednesday morning. The usual 36 seats were occupied by the usual 36 students in Physical Education 290 and English 102, a six-credit combination of sports psychology and English that meets five days a week at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. Free space at the back and sides of the room was taken up by students and teachers from other classes.
The special guest stood at the front near the blackboard, under a sign that read IDEAS RULE THE WORLD. She was, by far, the youngest and smallest person in the room—14 years old, 5'3", maybe 95 pounds. She was a ninth-grader from nearby Irvine High. She was an Olympic athlete, a swimmer. Amanda Beard. She was the attraction.
Q.—What goes through your mind before a race? How do you get ready for competition?
Q.—You're so young and stuff. Do you feel like you're missing out on other things? Do you have friends who aren't swimmers?
Q.—So, are we going to see your face on a Wheaties box pretty soon?
Many of the students were athletes, some phys-ed majors who had fallen in love with sports in high school and were hoping to move on to careers in coaching or training or some other part of the phys-ed business. It took no record-breaking leap of the imagination to think that each of them had at one time hoped to appear on a Wheaties box.
Yet the only Olympian in the room was this tiny adolescent, her arms folded across her chest, her blue eyes looking at all of these college kids looking back at her. During this summer's Games in Atlanta she would be swimming the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes, plus perhaps the breaststroke leg on the 4x100-meter medley relay, and she probably has the best chance of any U.S. woman swimmer of winning a gold medal in an individual event. Her time of 2:26.25 in the 200 is the fastest in the world in 1996. Her time of 1:08.36 in the 100 is the year's second-fastest, behind only the world record of 1:07.46 swum by Penelope Heyns of South Africa.
Fourteen years old. Why was she the one? Why was her Olympic daydream being fulfilled instead of somebody else's? Did she have some quality—physical or emotional—that no one else in this room had? Did she work harder? Did she have a stronger genetic background for athletics? Did she make use of a secret stroke technique or an inspirational mantra? What?
The search was for magic answers to everyday questions. That was why the room was filled.
Q.—What do you do for nutrition? Are you on a special diet?